Saturday, January 5, 2013

The Principle of Reasonable Explanation

Hey y'all.  You're probably wondering about that title.  Well, the principle of reasonable explanation basically goes like this: people in general will buy an explanation that seems reasonable even without proof that this reasonable explanation is true.

For example, take the story of the nine blind men touching the elephant.  Each of them are touching a different part of an elephant, like the tail, nose, or leg, and each of them say that his piece is what an elephant is like.  This is a little philosophy story to basically say that all people know a piece of the truth, and the real truth of the elephant can only come by putting all the pieces that the blind men have together.  Sounds reasonable, doesn't it?  Only there are several problems with this metaphor.

For one thing, no blind guy is just going to hang on to one piece of the elephant.  They're going to go, "huh, what's this attached to?" and keep investigating.  They'll eventually figure out that all the parts of the elephant are all attached.  And what is the elephant doing?  Just standing there?  I don't know much about elephants, but I'm pretty sure that they wouldn't like being surrounded by nine touchy-feely dudes. 

Also, what if one of the guys wasn't touching the elephant?  What if he was touching a giraffe, or a hamster, or a rock?  What if he's touching nothing at all, but merely pretending he is so that he can either feel included or sound smart?  What if he thinks the others are just making up a creature called an "elephant" and get mad at them for not "admitting that they're making it all up"?

The biggest problem with this story is that it's a metaphor.  What's wrong with metaphors?  Nothing.  But while the philosopher has left you with this really pretty story, there is absolutely no proof that the world is like an elephant with everyone touching different parts.  The philosopher has in no way cited real life experiences to actually prove life is like touching different parts of an elephant.  The only reason people believe in it is that it sounds reasonable, so they figure it must be true.

The trouble is, "reasonable" is defined differently by different people.  And it's not very reasonable when it comes to some people.  Like, for example, zombie fans.  Now, if people want to get dressed up in all bloody costumes, have a stroll through town, and then have a dance party, whatever.  All in good fun.  However, I have already met four people who genuinely believe in zombies, and I haven't asked around too much so I'm sure there's more.

The really insanely creepy thing about this is that no scientist has come close to ever proving that an undead being can exist.  They haven't been putting out reports of how it's possible, and nobody in a lab is trying to create zombies.  Nobody's ever seen or been attacked by one.  This means that the general public has been convinced into believing into zombies simply due to the number of shows, fictitious survival guides, and comic books that are out there.  All fictitious works.  And yet people believe this is true.

While part of me is very amused and feels I can manipulate this with my writing ability, it's still very scary.  How many people have thought about this?  How many have figured it out?  There are so many people out there who don't think about these things, just accepting them without question.

It gets worse.  I was reading the book The Everlasting Man by G.K. Chesterton.  This book is many decades old, but apparently people back in this day were still going through conflicts that we do today.  In it, Chesterton mentions cavemen.  Cavemen have never been proved.  You know that idea about banging women on the head and dragging them back to their caves?  There is no evidence whatsoever.  There are no caves of battered women's skulls, nor any cave markings to indicate pulling a woman away by her hair.  In fact, nobody can prove that the people who did cave paintings actually lived in those caves.  Whatever ancient man was, there is no evidence he conforms to our image of him.  To quote Alan Dershowitz, if you tell the big lie often enough, people will believe it.

Of course, sometimes there is nothing too wrong with this principle.  For example, I was reading a book on Asperger's, and the author claimed that 99.9% of people who feel they have Aspergers are correct.  Maybe they're reading about it one day, and all of a sudden they realize they have it.  It is a reasonable explanation that they have Asperger's, and using their own personal logic, they figure that they must have it too.

Notedly, this sort of reasonable explanation is much more accurate.  Why is this?  Because no one knows you like yourself.  If you read about Asperger's, chances are you can diagnose or refute it all on your own because you know your past and how well you interact with others.  You, however, know nothing of the science behind what makes a person alive and able to move, and so you couldn't possibly explain why zombies are impossible.  Who of us knows which of us "blind men" is really "touching an elephant" or if it even is an elephant? 

Therefore, you use your human reason to determine the accuracy of zombies and the existence of nature, because you simply don't have the experience or knowledge necessary to explain everything in the world.  Thus you find the person who seems the smartest and decide that their opinion is yours, or pieces of their opinion are yours.  However, your ability to do this hinges on your ability to be logical and to do research, or your ability to ignore a matter you don't feel is worth exploring.

Thinking of all these things, I feel oddly powerful.  And disturbed.  Is it then this easy to fool people?  Can I, simply by sounding smart, manipulate those around me?  Well, let's find out.  How convinced are you that the principle of reasonable explanation exists?  Has this blog done well enough to convince you?

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